My Favourite Free Online Tools

A while ago I was conducting training for entrepreneurs and discussed all the free online tools available to entrepreneurs to help craft a professional and consistent brand and narrative.

It is one thing to post regularly on social media, it is another thing to make your communication stand out head and shoulders in the huge noise of the digital world. How do we do this? Distinct look and feel, quality, vetted information, content that adds value, connecting with your audience. This, funny enough, includes what your invoices look like, your email signature, how you word your emails, and if your social media posts are configured correctly with no copy write issues!

So, here is a list of my favourite FREE online tools for those entrepreneurs who know exactly what Bootstrapping is!

1. Canva

Canva is an online design tool with hundreds of templates, pictures, video clips, sound bites, and ideas. The great thing about Canva is that when you pick your design, say for instance a Facebook post, the template you work on is already in the perfect format. From email signatures, business cards, and proposals to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram posts – you have it all available! The secret is to build a look and feel that supports your brand and makes it recognizable.

2. Invoicely

Gone are the days when we invoice all our clients on Excell and just slap a logo on. You can create professional invoices on Invoicely. The free package allows for a limited amount of clients but more than enough if you are starting up or have a small to medium-size client book. It has a handy dashboard so that you can track invoices and payments made. If you want a more sophisticated system then the Waves Invoicing App is for you. Quite a job to set it up, but once done it is super professional and very handy, especially at a busy month-end!

3. Grammarly

Perhaps the most important tool for anyone doing any kind of writing! Not all of us are language buffs. And you cannot always rely on your laptop’s spell and grammar checker. Do yourself a favour and run your emails, proposals, and letters through Grammarly before sending them out. Even a mediocre piece of writing presents better if there are no spelling and grammar issues!

4. Mailchimp

This user-friendly newsletter platform is a fantastic tool in customer relationship management. The platform will alert you if images are too big or subject lines are too long. The free package allows for more than enough emails on a single database. Manage your database, design a template for your emails, and track responses with the easy-to-use dashboard. You can even sync it with your social media accounts to ensure that once a newsletter is sent out is also published on your channels.

5. Pexels

Royalty-free video footage! I wonder how many people just ‘borrow’ content without considering royalties. Those images and videos were made by someone. As an entrepreneur yourself, how would you feel if someone used your IP without paying you? Instead, search for Royalty-free pictures, music, and videos and know that you are doing a fellow entrepreneur a service!

There are many more tools out there. But these are some of my favourites. In fact, I almost always have these tabs open in one of my browsers! Just a reminder, that tools are only as good as the craftsman wielding them. Design your strategy and understand what it is that your audience would like to read and see and then develop the look and feel, the narrative, and the brand presence.

The Puppy on My Lap 6 Lessons from a #BossMom

Roy Lichtenstein
Wether you have chosen to exit the formal job market or was forced due to circumstances, it is tough to make it on your own. Trying to balance work/life, getting acccess to market, making contacts and basically being CCB (Cook, Chief and Bottle washer).
Trying to do all that and be a full-time mom with full-time mom responsibilities like lunch boxes, home work, sports, broken hearts and bruised knee’s, household chores, feeding the family, keeping the plants and pets alive and still looking fabulous at your next client engagement is a like living in a 70’s super hero comic book. At some point you will crack, the Kryptonite of your circumstances will render you helpless, unless you stop and breath for a moment.
It so happens that a couple of months ago my world was made just a tad more interesting by the unannounced arrival of a tiny Jack Russel Puppy. I love animals. I adore puppies. But I have enough responsibilities. My first reaction was desperation at my ever-changing challenges. But, taking a step back Blitzer the Jack Russel Pup, sleeping on my lap has thought me 6 lessons. I’d love to share it with other BossMom’s and similar super hero’s out there.
Blog Pic
1.     Peaceful minds don’t plan, they live now and follow through
I am an over-thinker, over-planner, over achiever. I can analyse the fun out of everything and often do. It is hard work to make my mind shut up and observe for a change. When your mind is at peace you can focus and follow through. Then the day-to-day dramas of life come and go while you can follow your North Star.
What does this mean for your business? It means you write down your vision on every mirror, on every white board, on every screen and recite it as your mantra. Focus and follow through.
2.     Everything is personal
By that I don’t mean the thin-skinned, immature, entitled, self-absorbed, reactionary “no body loves me, everybody hates me, I’m gonna eat some worms” attitude. I mean everything in life is about relationships. If you can’t connect with someone on a personal level there is no true connection made. That goes for clients, suppliers, your kids and your spouse. Time, acknowledgement, focus, attention, compassion – those are the rarest and most valuable of commodities.
What does this mean for your business? Take the time treat every person as a person in need of another person, not in need of a service or a product.
3.     It is not about you
We are all connected and when we loose our connection with each other, we become frantic and anxious. We have this drive to be independent and responsible, but we forget that we can only function fully when we stay connected and focus on what we can offer rather than what we can get. When we shift the focus from what we need to what we can give, life opens up a whole spectrum of amazing opportunities. All of a sudden we offer value and make an impact.
What does this mean for your business? Instead of focusing on all the things you need to succeed, focus on what you can provide and give to make a lasting difference in every situation you find yourself in. Focussing on what you can give rather what you need takes away the anxiety and the drive to succeed in a materialistic world of conspicuous consumption.
4.     You are asking/wishing/praying for the wrong thing
Whatever your religious or spiritual beliefs are, there comes a time in any mom-preneur’s life when you ask/pray/wish for more of something, less of something. Some kind of miracle, some intervention. When you are just so overwhelmed you don’t know where to but to wish on a star or cry a prayer. We ask/wish/pray for the wrong things. We want quick cures, symptomatic relief. Instead we should seek fulfilment and joy and self-growth. Not wealth and financial security. We need that to survive, but we need the other stuff to thrive.
What does this mean for your business? Yes you need to keep the lights burning and pay your child’s school fees, but when you trust in something greater than yourself and focus on a bigger “why” than making ends meet, an amazing shift in perception happens. We focus on what we have and thus our positive thoughts create positive responses, different people and opportunities are drawn to us and amazing things happen.
5.     The journey will provide
This concept is a beautiful African one that the over-thinker, over-planner mind struggle and grapple with because it means belief and purpose. It also implies that you cannot out-plan life and you need to let go and trust the process. If you know where you are heading, trust that the journey will provide you with the equipment you need to get to that destination.
What does this mean for your business?  If you have your vision formulated and embedded in your DNA, it is motivation enough to trust that whatever you need to get to that destination will be provided on the journey. What we think we become.
6.     Purpose, Purpose, Purpose
In real estate the old adage goes: It is all about location, location, location.  In life and in business I find it is all about purpose. Though purpose might and probably will change as we grow as people, we have to identify something so great and wonderful that resonatates with us so deeply that we are prepared to work and sweat and cry in order to achieve that. I don’t mean to be all “kumbaya-e”, it is a matter of business case-studies. I listened to the African CEO of a very large brand house say  that their brands that drive purpose are much more succesful than the brands without a purpose. Purpose drives profit – what a revolution!
What does this mean for your business? Know your “why” and remind yourself daily of that. If you cling to your “why” the struggles and the worries tend to fade away slightly and help you focus on what is on front of you and what you are working towards. It certainly doesn’t come easy and is not a quick fix, but to remember why you chose this journey helps you staying your course.
Now I have used a whole hour of “productive” time, but at least I can share my thoughts and the lessons of a puppy on my lap. Hopefully some thoughts for you to ponder on over this season of change and new beginnings. 

A picture that speaks a thousand words: My experience of a professional photo-shoot

Once upon a time there lived a fairy. Whether she was good or bad was unsure. What was sure that when she looked in the mirror, the challenges that life threw at her overshadowed the fire that burned inside her heart.

Enter the fairy godmother’s Maureen Grobler and Marethe Grobler.

In one day of compassionate caring, expert make up and art direction, they managed to capture the image of the fairy’s fiery heart, the passion in her soul that burned brighter than any fire trying to snuff her out. Most of all, they captured the joy she almost lost and with that fortified her belief in her own abilities and purpose in this world; to bring flavour and colour and ignite those around her.

Maureen Grobler is not only a highly talented make-up artist; she is a reader of souls, perceptively unlocking your authentic image. Unobtrusively reading your mind while bringing out the personality behind the face. Marethe works with unassuming ease, transforming in what could be a daunting thing, into a life-changing experience of love and compassion.

It is a shame and a pity that people view photo shoots as either narcissistic or self-promoting. I guess it depends on what you need out of it. For me it was a series in events in my personal journey to discovery of who I was meant to be and what I was meant to accomplish. I think it is an essential step in the understanding of ourselves, to see who we can be and how others see us. It should not just be at a wedding or special occasion, is should be somewhere in our career where we actually don’t feel bold and courageous at all.

 My photo shoot with Maureen and Marethe taught me this:

       We seldom see ourselves as what we could be and we should be reminded of that daily, for what we focus on, we become.

       To hide our own passion and light because we don’t want to intimidate others is a selfish act of self-destruction. Only when you realize what you are capable of can you ignite those around you.

       Taking care of yourself and taking pictures that capture your ‘you-ness’ is essential as visual reminder. We are bombarded of images of what beauty, success, wealth and health looks like. Perhaps we should be reminded constantly that we have all those things already, if we just dig deep enough and keep on focusing on what we already have.

       This should not be something mainly for female clientele. It is time that we break and re-write a lot of narratives, one of them being the gender stereotype narrative that women likes to look pretty and dress up and men just show up. It is complete and utter nonsense and degrades both men and women. We all have a need to feel accepted, mostly by ourselves; we all need to see who we really can be through the un-lying lens of and un-photo-shopped photograph.

       To present a professional, authentic you is essential whether you are a director of a company or a director of a house-hold. You must be reminded of the best version of you and you must broadcast the best version of you.

Ever since I was a young child I was intrigued by the magic of the camera. My birthday gift on my 21st birthday was a camera and I developed my own pictures at one stage. I became acutely aware of how a picture really tells a thousand words.

What are the thousand words you want to tell the world about yourself, and keep on telling you about yourself? How are you going to re-write your story to help you become the amazing person you where meant to be? As a story junky, a scribe and a strategic communicator I now fully understand how your story can be told in pictures, just like the old fashioned silent movies. What is it that you can add to the world, what are you hiding behind fear, insecurity or cultural and social perceptions? I dare you, to come out into the light and start a journey of self-discovery!

As the sun rises over a brand new day, the fairy looks into the mirror of her eyes, reminded by her camera image of fire and light and she ignores the challenges of life and burns ever brighter, because the flame within her is much brighter than the fire roaring around her.

Marethe en Maureen

8 Tips for Professional Communication

Is the image you broadcast the best version of you? I was asked recently to record a short insert on professional email and telephone conduct. It made  think of the context each individual sends and receives communication.

Do you feel like nobody takes you seriously? Do you feel your colleagues are condescending or do you find them lazy, entitled and acting like slobs? Do you question someone’s integrity?

Every single person has a very unique life-story, history and personality type. On top of that we come from very specific generations and cultures that moulded our thinking and the stories we tell ourselves. It is not strange to find four to five generations in one company these days. The way we communicate and the way we receive the communication are influenced by the back-story of who we are.

How on earth does one navigate through such a minefield of emotions and personalities?

Big organisations usually have a brand- and conduct manual  that give guidelines with regards to dress code, email, social media and other protocol. But small business seldom has such a manual. If you work for yourself or have just graduated you don’t have such a manual at all, unless you devise a code of conduct for yourself. This is your map to navigate through this minefield of communication traps and it forms part of how your personal brand is experienced.

Communication is such a broad subject and touches on all the ways that you broadcast your personal brand. How we speak (or don’t speak), how we dress, how well groomed we are, how we write or engage on social media and who we associate with are all ways in which you communicate your personal brand.

In this article I share quick tips to dust the cobwebs and polish up that personal brand.

Email ditches

4 Email Ditches to Avoid:

Ditch 1: Emails are productivity black holes

Ditch 2: What does your email look like?

Ditch 3: Buy a Dictionary!

Ditch 4: Think before you send!

4 Email Ditches to Avoid:

Ditch 1: Emails are productivity black holes

Minimise the time you spend answering emails. It is very easy to spend a whole day just answering emails. Schedule specific times in your day and limit the time you spend in your Inbox. Prioritize emails, act accordingly and then close your Inbox to focus on your next task.

Ditch 2: What does your email look like?

Is there a clear description in the Subject line? Do you use a classic font that is easy to read? Do you use a professional e-signature that displays your contact details, designation and social media information? Do your emails have a professional look and lots of white space?

Ditch 3: Buy a Dictionary!

Or use Spell Checker, but please avoid over-use of capital letters, exclamation marks and other punctuation. Avoid humour, risqué comments, vulgar language or sarcasm (not everybody has your sense of humour). Please stop with the texting shorthand! Nobody understands what you mean and it looks like you never went to school, write out your words and leave the LOL’s and emoticons for your mates. 

Ditch 4: Think before you send!

Are you defusing a situation or pouring petrol on the flames? Are the relevant people copied in, in terms of job description, level and team duties?

Never assume your email reached its destination. A telephone call to confirm its safe passage is critical.

4 Telephone Blunders to Avoid

Blunder 1: Manners makes man (and woman)

Blunder 2: Private Calls

Blunder 3: Respect boundaries

Blunder 4: Integrity with info

Phone Blunders

Which brings me to the 4 telephone blunders to avoid.

Between you and me, I also prefer emails. I can thing about it and phrase it well. It is also a great way of keeping track of a project or task that needs to be done. But eventually you will have to pick up that phone and make human contact.

Blunder 1: Manners makes man (and woman)

Smile before you answer a call and say your name and the company you work for, this makes someone on the other side feel important and welcome. You can hear a frown or a smile. Be polite, it costs absolutely nothing and speak volumes about your character.

Blunder 2: Private Calls

At work the only private calls you are supposed to take are death or emergency related. When you sign your contract with your employer, your employer buys a certain amount of time from you. When you chat about the movie tonight or the weekend’s party, you are stealing from your employer and you loose focus. Switch your phone to silent and limit the times you check it for those death/emergency messages. By the way…your boyfriend/girlfriend cancelling tonight’s plan does not constitute an emergency.

Blunder 3: Respect boundaries

Just because we all have smartphones doesn’t mean we have to be available all the time just for you. Respect office hours, boundaries and privacy. This is especially a trap that entrepreneurs often blunder into – just because I catch up on my admin and emails over the weekend doesn’t mean you are available to text or talk to me.

Blunder 4: Integrity with info

You never just share a contact’s number with a third party but always asks permission. It is just plain good manners.

The stories we tell ourselves of ourselves and others leave a residue that stays for a long, long while. First impressions last and all that…it is your personal brand and you can consciously work on a stellar, A class, super duper brand or plod along thinking that people don’t like you.

As the author Maya Angelou said: People will forget what you said and they will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.

Igniting Potential

Welcome to my little corner of the Internet.

Unlike all the other content I generate and manage for clients, this website is just mine. Combining all the things I love doing and offering services that add value and makes a difference: Strategy, writing, speaking, organizing, designing and helping people to communicate better.

Tea and a book and a cat

The common denominator in all my endeavours over a 20-odd year career, be it corporate positions or entrepreneurial ventures, has always been to ignite potential and translate concepts into reality, for organisations and individuals.

I am passionate about igniting potential. Potential in people, projects, organisations and plans. Spark Inc. was born out of many years in the corporate communications field, sustainable development and as an entrepreneur.

I have been involved in the rapid development and refreshment of over 50 brands and communication strategies, from concept phase to change management and stakeholder engagement stage. I have a passion to empower fellow entrepreneurs and love working in the SME space where a little change can have a great impact.

My unique methodologies guarantee communication strategies and tools that serve the business strategy and realise the potential that may be unlocked when we challenge our concepts of who we can be and what our business may become.

I invite you to join and share in my musings, odd wisdoms and experience.